Shanghai’s Migrants Want to Return Home

Migrants Return Home - Collective Responsibility

“Shanghai can’t give me the feeling of home. I don’t know if you have same experience. Despite the fact I am not particularly close to my family, I am still most comfortable when I am in my hometown and knowing that my family is somewhere I can reach. Every time when I am heading back home, by just looking at how the landscape is getting more and more familiar, my heart would feel warm”.

With China’s urban population exploding from 20% of the total population in 1981 to 54% in 2014, and projected to reach 70% by 2030,  the pressure on cities to build an economy and quality of life that attracts and stabilizes its newest residents is vital to long term success of the city.

Going well beyond the physical building of the buildings and infrastructure required to effectively house and transport urban residents, jobs need to be created, schools & hospitals need to be built, and cultures need to be integrated – all at the scale and speed of China.

Historically, the pressure was one that was largely placed on the Eastern cities as migrant labor from China’s central and western regions move to the coast to access jobs made available by factories and construction sites.  Shanghai, for example, has seen its population increase from 12-15 million to more than 25 million in this time, with the native Shanghai populations of many districts being outnumbered by residents from Sichuan, Hunan, Jiangsu, Anhui, and others that  have been attracted by higher wages, better opportunities and the allure of city life.

As the movement matures, and migrants achieved a measure of financial stability, what they set out for in the first place, another wave of migrants came to the city as families looked to reunite and plant roots in their new “home”.

54% of Migrants Plan to Return Home

Yet despite the success that many have found in Shanghai (and other cities),  revealed by our recent interviews with more than 100 migrant workers in Shanghai, more than 54% of migrants claimed they wanted to eventually leave the city and return home. Be it in a couple of years, when their children have finished school, or after having spent 30+ years working in the city.

While a wide range of migrant demographics participated in the survey, and each have their own expectations for moving to the city, there was no single challenge that served as the primary reason for leaving, but were several that were of common concern:

  1. Living costs – Be it the cost of rent, tuition, or transportation, the cost of living in Shanghai was the greatest challenge for those we interviewed, and a challenge that was driving them to look at opportunities other cities (closer to home)
  2. Discrimination – Being the cost of living, the constant feeling that they are different, was another challenge that left many discouraged.  Regardless of whether or not they believed themselves to be residents of Shanghai, it was clear to them that they were outsiders
  3. Lacking Community – Without family or friends in the city, exasperated by the high turnover rates, many we spoke with mentioned their struggle to feel rooted their in a community.

For them, to return home would be to live where these challenges do not exist. But returning home is not only an escape of tough city living conditions, it’s a return to familiarity.

Population Growth Migrants Return Home - Collective Responsibility

How close to home is home?

While clear that leaving the city for “home” was something that was clearly being considered by a large portion of the migrants we spoke with, one of the key questions that needs to be answered is what does “home” mean?  Is “home” the physical place where they were born and raised, before moving to the city?  Or is “home” another city, perhaps within their home province, where they have access to economic opportunity, where they are not isolated from family, where their Hukou give them access to services, and where they are surrounded by “their” people?

The difference is important because if they decide to settle back down into their original village, then the cities that are being built today will end up having a high level of failure in the infrastructure and services they just built.  But, if the return “home” means returning to the provincial capitals nearest to their familial plot, then this movement will be aligned to the governments own objectives to balance out the economy, relieve the pressure on the East Coast, and concern will be about access to amenities, infrastructure, job opportunities and whether or not their farm is still there. If they move back to their home province but settle in a lower tier city however, other concerns and opportunities arise – concerns which are not unfounded, as macro economic trends reveal. Economic growth and migrant workers are shifting westward.

Looking at the maps above, one can clearly see this trend playing out over the last five years.  In fact, since 2011, the 2nd tier cities of Chengdu, Chongqing, Hangzhou and Nanjing represented some of the fastest growing economies in the country, and that was matched by migrant population increases of 4% and 4.1%, respectively, that outpaced migration to Eastern provinces  of 3.7%. A trend that is likely to continue as provincial capital economies grow, create economic opportunities, and offer a quality of life that is more in line with the needs of its newest citizens.

Implications for Shanghai (and other cities)

“I am not going to settle down in Shanghai, I will go back home once I am married and have kids. Although Shanghai has been great, I do not want us to be out here without any family support. Like what if I got sick and am not able to work, who is going to take care my wife and kids? So I would still like to move back to somewhere closer to my larger family”.

With the numbers of people moving to and from the city, and no immediate quick fix solution to the challenges that migrants face, in the short term it is highly likely that this population will grow more anxious and less tolerant if their expectations (reasonable or not) for a quality of life are not met.

And while this is part of the long term master plan for China, in the short term this is a movement that is both a good and bad thing for the first and second tier East coast cities.  Good, as any movement of migrants out of the city will result help city leaders plan investments and allocate resources more easily while at the same time helping to reduce the tension that migrants and native populations feel.  Tensions that can result not just in  clashes between the two, but divide the cities up.  Where this becomes a challenge for a city, is that these cities are heavily reliant on migrants.  They not only build buildings, farm the land, and sweep the street, but are more often than not the support that families need to clean their households, and watch over children and elderly.  They are shop owners who sell soy milk and pancakes to the busy Shanghai residents on their way to work.

In light of this, and regardless of which path the cities of Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou take, the one thing that is clear is that provincial and city level governments in China’s Central and Western areas have a lot of work to do.  Unlike their first counterparts, attracting and retaining inner-provincial migrants will be key to their long term success as provinces and cities, and they need to develop strategies for how to not only develop economic opportunities that attract talent to their cities, but also invest into the social infrastructure (affordable housing, hospitals and schools) to create a city that people are comfortable calling home.


This article was written by Collective Responsibility Research Analysts, Rim Karoui and Michael Hager.

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